I saw so many children when I was casting Coot Club and The Big Six that I could have left the BBC and set myself up as an independent casting director, but I was twenty-two and all I wanted to do was to join the film crew on location in Norfolk. I was just not sure how.
The script called for a pug dog called William to not only appear with Mrs Barrable, played by Rosemary Leach, but to accompany the children as sailed through the Norfolk Broads aboard the Teasel. He then becomes the hero of the day as he walks across the mud on Breydon Water so a rope can be slung from one boat to another. He ended up needing to sit on weighing scales outside Beccles Post Office. I contacted Janimals, the London animal handlers. They decided it would be best to buy a puppy and train him for the requirements of the story. Naturally he was named William. The delightful young dog was brought into the office for our approval. He was still youthful when he appeared in front of the camera.
Andrew Morgan was a lovely director with two children the same age as those in our cast. To my surprise, I met him with his family one weekend on Port Meadow near Oxford. They had a narrow-boat moored at Bossom’s Boatyard where my father kept his steamboat Daffodil. Arthur Ransome would have approved.
Andrew had previously directed action dramas such as Secret Army, Blakes 7, Buccaneer, Triangle, Kings Royal and two episodes of Squadron, which Joe Waters had produced. Andrew, who was good at delegating, later declared himself, as he cued the steam train on the North Norfolk Railway, to be a director who specialised in films about different forms of transport. He very graciously asked me if I would work on location in the formal role of chaperone to the children whilst preparing their performances for the scenes ahead. He anticipated being out on the water in a boat without enough time to go through the children’s lines with them.
Once the casting was complete and licenses for each child safely lodged with various education authorities I took a weeks’ leave before returning to the production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where I helped book transport and accommodation. Filming on the Norfolk Broads for three months took quite a bit of preparation. While Joe and Andrew were casting the adult parts, we had to find a local tutor, buy life jackets and make numerous arrangements idiosyncratic to our particular production. The most exciting of these was commissioning the animal handler, Jan Gray of Janimals, to find a pug dog to play William. She bought a puppy so that he could be accustomed to his character name, travelling by boat, working with children and specifically trained to walk across mud. William had no idea of the stardom that awaited him. He ended up spending a great deal of his life in Gretchen Franklin’s arms playing Willy in Eastenders.
The day came when I packed up the little room I had been renting in Shepherd’s Bush from the actress Zelah Clarke and drove to the Dimblebys’ house in Putney to collect Henry. As he had just passed his Common Entrance he’d been let off school earlier than most thirteen-year-olds and we motored up to Norwich in a jubilant mood, singing most of the way. Whilst most of the production team and crew had found holiday cottages, I was to live at Sprowston Manor, the unit hotel with Caroline Downer, Henry and the other actors including the Matthews twins who travelled up with their mother. It was terribly grand. We had small quiet rooms at the back.
Liz Mace, our production manager, had taken my advice and scheduled ‘running around scenes’ for the first few days of filming, so that the children could get used to working with the film crew. The whole series was shot on 16mm by a wonderful, patient lighting-cameraman called Alec Curtis. We were very lucky to get him. He’d just finished The Kenny Everett Television Show and had worked on a huge number of well known comedy dramas ~ The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin with Leonard Rossiter, Fawlty Towers for John Cleese, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Sorry!, To the Manor Born and a BBC thriller called Scorpion. Alec had made God’s Wonderful Railway and was more than happy working with Andrew on the Bluebell Line for the opening scenes of Coot Club. Filming from a boat presented many more challenges, not least simply keeping the camera horizontal, but Alec was ever patient and kind. And always wearing a sun hat.
I had drawn Andrew endless diagrams of Claude Whatham’s camera pontoon, built with a flat surface to accommodate camera track, that used to make Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District. However a more normal and faster vessel was chosen as the camera boat for the Broads. It had to travel around quite a bit since a far greater variety of locations was required than we had in Cumbria. We also had a couple of glass fibre run-around boats which would sometimes be used for the camera, especially in backwaters too shallow for the larger boat.
I have been writing about the adventures had whilst filming from one boat to another here:
17 thoughts on “Filming ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ for BBC TV in 1983 ~”
More, more, please!
Sadly I don’t have a copy of our schedule, only my old address book – but let me have any questions and I will do my best to answer them.
Hi Sophie,Tell me more. I have only recently found the DVD, AR would I’m sure, have enjoyed it at much as I. Beautifully acted, and weren’t those twins charming!.
Hi Sophie, From watching it, I must point out that the railway scenes were shot on the North Norfolk Railway, not the Bluebell Line. Wroxham station is clearly Weybourne station, and when Dick and Dot meet Tom they are sitting at Sheringham station, both are on the NNR 🙂
Thanks – I have altered this elsewhere. I think it’s OK on the DVD extras package for the new release!
I remember being up on the NNR so clearly. The Station also featured in ‘Dad’s Army’.
In the first episode of the DVD and am sure that the sound is a few frames out of sinc, which blitzs the reality of the performances in the railway carriage.
I’d forgotten the Dad’s Army connection Sophie!
The railway’s Gresley Quad Art carriage set, which Dick, Dot and Tom ride in in Coot Club, was fully restored a few years ago and is in frequent use on the line once more.
Interestingly, the NNR is also now home to the sole remaining Wisbech and Upwell Tramway carriage – the sister one to that used in Ealing’s “The Titfield Thunderbolt” in 1953. Last year, they marked the film’s 60th birthday by recreating the Titfield branch train from the film, producing some stunning photographs.
Hi, I have over the years been on many Broads boating holidays after reading Ransome’s books as a child, and have sought out and visited many of the locations both in the books and the BBC shows, one location that I have never found was the pub The Roaring Donkey, where was it that they used as the pub’s location?
I have good reason to believe they used the geldeston lock inn , ive seen the pub sign used on set and its the laughing donkey I think . I saw it this morning as the person who obtained it was clearing out his shed where it was stored .
Oh, wow! Can you send me a photo of it? I know members of the Arthur Ransome Group would love to see it.
Yet more great stories from the making of this wonderful series! Thank you so much.
Thank you. I have been commissioned to bring out a book on ‘The Secrets of filming Coot Club and The Big Six’, and have it half-written, but I’m not sure how many copies would sell.
Excellent news! I am sure it would sell very well indeed.
But how many copies?
I would have thought that it would sell at least as well as ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. There is always a lot of interest shewn when you publish blog posts about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’.
I expect it would be 300 paperbacks + a few kindle copies.
Surely it would sell more than that. Would that be enough, do you think?
Dear Sophie. Please let me know when the Book is available. I look forward to reading it, with pleasure